UPDATE: 2:15 PM Since writing this piece, I've been told to expect that the 3B job will to go to Mike Olt as long as his shoulder is ok and he can make the throws from 3B. The Cubs are preparing to start him there very soon this spring. I've also heard that Renteria wants to add speed to the roster, so Bonifacio is looking good for a spot. I've learned too that a lot of teams coveted Bonifacio because of his clubhouse presence and aside from his on-field skills, that trait makes him a good fit for a team like the Cubs who will be bringing up multiple young players to the majors in the near future.
While players like Javier Baez and Mike Olt looking like potential impact infielders and players like Emilio Bonifacio showing he can fill a specific niche for the team, one player who seems to be fading into the background is defensive wizard Darwin Barney.
Barney's defense has made him a nice fit on a staff that is being taught to pound the lower part of the strike zone and generate weak contact, but it's Barney's own weak contact that could start to become an issue. His woeful wOBA of .252 last year is an offensive vacuum the Cubs may not be able to afford to carry much longer.
Still, if you would have asked me a a couple of weeks ago, I would have said that Barney was still the front runner to keep his job at 2B.
Now I'm not so sure.
There are several factors working against Barney right now as the Cubs look to upgrade their lineup for 2014.
The Bonifacio factor
While it's only spring, it seems that Barney is getting fewer and fewer reps at 2B. He's played some SS while Bonifacio has started most of the recent games at 2B. And while Bonifacio is not going to match Barney on defense, he can add a dimension the Cubs don't have, and that is a top of the order hitter with speed and OBP skills. With the exception of a half season last season, Bonifacio has been a pretty good table-setter type player. If you take out his poor half-season with the Blue Jays, he has put up a .351 OBP with 86 SBs in 102 attempts (84% success rate) in 258 games over the past 3 seasons.
In that light, it isn't surprising that Bonifacio has seen a lot of time at the top of the Cubs lineup. He can provide a spark at the top. He isn't the defensive player Barney is, but his career -2.6 UZR/150 suggests he's at least around an average defender -- perhaps better when you consider that in his only full season at 2B (2011), he put up a very solid 8.3 UZR/150.
The Olt factor
Olt doesn't play 2B so why should he have any impact on Barney? Well, Olt is hitting .333 with 3 HRs this spring and if his shoulder is healthy, he's a real threat to unseat the Luis Valbuena/Donnie Murphy platoon at 3B. That, in turn, would either bump Valbuena into a utility role and/or put him in a position to challenge Barney for playing time, especially vs. RHP against whom Valbuena put up a respectable .331 OBP and hit 12 HRs last season.
As for his defense, Valbuena played well in just 40 innings last year at 2B Overall he's been a below average defender at 2B in his career (-6.6 UZR/150), However, Valbuena has improved a bit and has been at roughly -0.5 since that 2010 season over 719 innings. Like Bonifacio, you can probably live with that considering he can add some offense to the position short term.
If Olt wins 3B, that gives the Cubs two 2Bs in Valbuena and Bonifacio who can provide better offense without hurting the team too much on defense. And the player who doesn't start would offer better skills off the bench (Valbuena as a LH hitter with pop and Bonifacio as a switch-hitter with speed) than Barney, who would become little more than a late inning defensive replacement.
The Baez factor
Of course, all of these solutions are temporary. Sooner or later the Cubs are going to have to make a decision with Javier Baez, who is tearing up spring training for the 2nd straight year. He's also coming off a season where he hit 37 HRs and absolutely destroyed AA pitching. He's going to play SS at Iowa, but with Starlin Castro entrenched for the moment at SS, Baez's preferred position is 2B -- and with Olt playing as well as he has, you have to think the Cubs are going to be happy to oblige.
Even if the Cubs decide to move Starlin Castro, as Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks alluded to yesterday on Twitter, the Cubs still have another top, near ready 2B prospect in Arismendy Alcantara. Alcantara can add a dynamic offensive dimension to the position with his speed, OBP skills, and his ability to switch-hit. He can also provide some solid pop while possessing a potentially above average glove for the position.
No matter what happens on Opening Day, it appears Barney's days as a Cubs are numbered. His escalating salary will soon be too rich for a one dimensional player and so perhaps the Cubs best chance to extract value is this season. A team such as the Yankees who have enough offense but are in need of better infield defense could be a nice fit in the short term.
Even if he isn't traded, the Cubs seem to be preparing Barney for a utility role whether it's now or sometime later this season. He's played more SS this spring and while that is due in part to Castro's injury, it does appear that the Cubs are making a concerted effort to determine if he's a viable option there if needed -- if not for them, then maybe for another team.
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